Apichatpong Weerasethakul is a Thai filmmaker and visual artist. He first trained as an architect before studying filmmaking at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. His films have had success internationally, particularly at the Cannes Film Festival, where he has won the Palme d’Or for Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives (2010), the Prix du Jury for Tropical Malady (2004) and the Prix Un Certain Regard for Blissfully Yours (2002). Next year Tate Modern will stage a full retrospective of his works. His most recent film, Cemetery of Splendour, was screened at this year’s London Film Festival.
Interview: Ajay RS Hothi
Ajay RS Hothi The atmosphere in Cemetery of Splendour feels even more charged than in your other films. You’ve talked about how there has been a general sense of fear in Thailand since the military took power in May 2014. Do you still feel that this is the case?
Apichatpong Weerasethakul Yes, and perhaps more than before. It’s difficult to separate your life and your work, and it’s impossible to mention politics in your work nowadays. Since the military takeover there have been a number of occasions when people have been jailed for it. There are so many rules. Often you’ll just hear a knock at the door before you’re taken from your home or your office. There is a name for that process: it’s called “attitude adjustment”. But still there remain some very outspoken people. Two performers, students, have been jailed for a very long time. These kinds of things generate fear.
I want to deal with it in a way, but I don’t want to deal with it to the point where it becomes frustrating. On the one hand you fight; on the other hand you end up thinking to yourself, “Well, what can I do, really?” You’re up against this absolute military power. They have guns! It’s very hard for people to understand. I have friends, for example, in France, who say to me, “Why don’t you protest?” But you can’t, so you end up feeling powerless in many ways.
AH A recurring motif in Cemetery is one character reading from a journal, which I’ve heard is the diary of a woman whose husband was taken by the military and who subsequently died in jail. You’ve described Cemetery of Splendour as “not political, but…”
AW Well, some people have read the film as very political. Explicitly political. For me it’s about life during this very difficult period. Of course, hidden throughout the film are some moments that have some small significance; for example, written on the blackboard in the background are some dates that are important in Thailand’s history. But I don’t think I could have made this film with any kind of direct or outright political message. Firstly because I cannot – legally; secondly, because I don’t want to anyway. I think this is the limit. It is a comfortable level for me to go. I do have some desire to do more, and to do something more directly.
I really want to work with this woman whose husband died in jail, whose journal we used. I had a plan to make an installation with her, but when the military came I had to shelve it. It’s really getting harder. I can’t talk to the press much more either. Some journalists push me to explain and I have to zigzag the issue because the law has been used arbitrarily. It’s just not worth it. And this film reflects this. For me, it’s also about suffocation and confusion in this lovely country, with this lovely scenery, beautiful landscapes. This place where I grew up.
AH The film is set in Khon Kaen, the city where you grew up. Does this give it more personal relevance for you?
AW For me, it’s the theme of sleeping that’s important to the film and that is personal for me.
AH Sleep has been a recurrent theme in your work, particularly recently. At Double Visions, your exhibition last year in London, Dilbar was about a construction worker dreaming, almost sleepwalking his way around a building site in the UAE, and Teem showed your boyfriend waking up every morning. In this film, the soldiers suffer from a “sleeping sickness”. The final shot is particularly striking – it’s almost as though the character has seen everything and yet can’t see anything. What have you learned about sleep in researching your work?
AW I’ve done lots of research into sleep, starting from around 2008 or 2009 when I worked in the village that resulted in the Primitive project. It was a place with lots of space, lots of open landscape. A lot of people from that area escaped to find work in the city. One way of escaping without actually leaving is of course to get drunk and fall unconscious. Sleep comes naturally. The people that we used in the films we made there, I asked them to sleep in the spaceship that we built. I wanted to feel their responses to that alien environment.
The relationship of sleeping and the cinema is also very interesting. One of the facts of sleep is its phases. There are four stages of sleep at night, and these come and go in cycles that average 90 minutes each. This must be the origin of cinema! Cinema is a dream. It’s how you lose yourself.
I did a lot of interviews in Thailand with sleep experts who had worked with soldiers suffering from PTSD, and this research did work itself into the film. For example, in Cemetery of Splendour the soldiers sleep under pulsating coloured lights. Of course, this is fiction; we made those lights. But the idea comes from neuroscientific research at MIT. They discovered that you can replicate – or even fabricate – memories through the use of a spectrum of colours. They succeeded with mice. I think this reflects how I grew up, or how we grew up, in Thailand. With a lot of propaganda. It’s hypnotism: a way of constructing national identity in narrative.
AH There are also a lot of external elements that are gently touched on in the film, some very nuanced influences. Outside the main hospital building there are construction workers; there’s also an army presence. There’s a temple nearby, and a forest. They must have some impact, even on the sleeping characters. There seems like a very delicate balance between sets of different worlds.
AW And sleep is an escape, in a way. But there’s also a strong sense of powerlessness. You can take that journey, but you don’t have control of your body.
AH The characters Jen and Itt do go on a journey during their sleep, but it’s like they’re being led by another, external factor: some invisible, spiritual element.
AW I took some inspiration from an old movie called Peter Ibbetson. I was introduced to the film by Tilda Swinton; it’s her favourite film. It’s about this guy and this girl who grow up as good friends, then they get separated and then they meet again, but then he is put in jail. So they long for one another and the way that they meet up is in dreams. It’s a very old film, but it has such impact. I need to watch it again; it’s such a beautiful film.
AH In all of your films there’s a point where the narrative changes. It might only be very discreet, but there is a shift. Things may be disrupted entirely, or they may remain more or less the same, just slightly askew. In Cemetery of Splendour I feel it comes with the introduction of the two Goddess Princesses. I’m interested in that relationship between the spiritual and the physical in your films.
AW In Thailand, they coexist very well: religious belief and superstition, and everyday life. We believe in the invisible – we believe in this realm that coexists, in this idea that everything has a spirit. People have relationships with things that they cannot see, but they know something is out there. Also, the rules of karma are believed and followed very strongly. Sometimes it’s very difficult to live in that mode when you’re trying to be rational but simply cannot.
AH You mention karma, but you also mention spaceships. Are you interested in science fiction?
AW I grew up with the classics! Ray Bradbury, Isaac Asimov… I read so much. I treat science fiction the same way that I treat ghost stories. To me, they are about the idea of the invisible and of different worlds. Living in Thailand forces me to be interested in science because there is a lot of superstition, and ideas like multiple lives and reincarnation. It’s impossible not to question this. Maybe that’s how the brain works and makes sense of things. It’s important to me to integrate the science, and science fiction, into what are everyday stories in Thailand.
AH Would it have been possible to make this film before?
AW Maybe not, because the situation was not pressing me to do it. There’s a reflection of the everyday that I wasn’t so interested in before. Maybe I’m just getting old. And there’s a lot of dialogue in this film. I wasn’t really interested in dialogue before.
AH Was that a conscious choice in order to explain situations more clearly? The relationships you create in the film don’t necessarily need much dialogue. They feel more intuitive than anything else. I’m sure lots of the spiritual aspects of your films go over the heads of Western audiences. You mentioned the dates on the blackboard in the background as being significant, but they don’t have much effect on the process of reading the films in other cultures. Your films have great appeal in one sense because they are built on a foundation that is clearly culturally significant, so they feel as though they describe an “authentic” Thai experience.
AW I’m very conscious that not everything is understood but at the same time I don’t mind. Otherwise you can’t really do very much. Here, in the UK, when people view movies they automatically operate in the movie mainstream mode, and the expectation of the film’s rhythm is so different to the rhythm of my films, but that’s the rhythm of how I experience life in Thailand. Sometimes it might feel too long. Viewers may expect something different, but there are always little things that are expressed, maybe dialogue, maybe some ritual-like element. Uncle Boonmee, for example, made people laugh a lot. It’s interesting to see how the films are received.
AH Very often images of Thailand are around Bangkok, but your films place a strong importance on local stories. That takes us back to mythology because myth and folklore are also local stories, passed down through generations. Also, like your films, they tie together the spiritual and the everyday. It’s rare that such stories have such appeal internationally. How are your films received in Thailand?
AW My work is not exhibited in Thailand much. The films and short films, yes, but in wider terms there are limitations of space and money. There are lots of attempts to interpret work in a political manner in Thailand, but that has a lot to do with the country’s present situation. Arts education has had some awareness and influence from the international media in the past few years. You see work that is being produced and, I don’t know, it has no soul.
But I know more about life outside Bangkok. It’s not my city. More than half of the city is made up of people who come from outside of Bangkok. A lot of my work is about that. The memory of that life outside. Thailand is very centralised in many ways: in power, in art. For me, making these films is a way of trying to balance this power. §
Cemetery of Splendour is out in the UK in spring 2016.